Yesterday morning the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hosted a hearing on the past, present, and (especially) future of human spaceflight, and attendees heard their fair share of complaints about the nation’s current space policy. Witnesses, in particular former astronauts Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan and former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, criticized everything from the decision to retire the shuttle to a perceived over-reliance on “certain entrepreneurial companies which have yet to show that they can deliver the laundry to ISS, never mind the crew that would wear it,” as Griffin put it in his opening statement.
Their criticism of the state of NASA’s human spaceflight program attracted some attention, but how significant is it? Armstrong, for example, complained that the current situation, where NASA has to rely on Russia for transporting crews to and from the ISS, is “lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable”, a soundbite that got a lot of play in reports of the hearing. While it may be embarrassing and unacceptable, it actually has its roots in the implementation of the prior nation human space exploration policy, the Vision for Space Exploration, which had inherent in its original goals (retiring the shuttle by 2010 and putting what was then called the Crew Exploration Vehicle into service in 2014) a gap as well. Armstrong also said commercial proposals to continue flying the shuttle (apparently a reference to United Space Alliance’s CCDev-2 proposal to continue shuttle flights at a low flight rate) “should be carefully evaluated prior to allowing them to be rendered ‘not flightworthy’ and their associated ground facilities to be destroyed.” However, that proposal was evaluated, and rejected, by NASA, and for all practical purposes the point of no return for extending shuttle operations has long since passed. And one wonders if officials at Boeing, one of the four companies with funded CCDev-2 awards (or, for that matter, ATK and ULA, which have unfunded CCDev-2 agreements) are chuckling over being lumped in with “entrepreneurial companies”, a comment that seems primarily a jibe at SpaceX.
So what, then, was the purpose of the hearing? There seems to be no enthusiasm for trying to salvage the shuttle from retirement, despite Armstrong’s testimony. Similarly, there appears to be little concrete interest in reducing the gap between the shuttle’s retirement and the introduction of a replacement system to carry astronauts to low Earth orbit, be it a commercial crew system (neither House nor Senate appropriators have proposed funding CCDev at the administration’s request) or the Space Launch System (which will not be ready to fly crews for about a decade, according to NASA’s plans, which key members of Congress seem to have signed off on given last week’s announcement, and for which there seems to be little appetite for additional funding to accelerate its development).
NASA itself was not represented on this panel, and didn’t seem to take the criticism levied at it too seriously, based on its response in a statement from an agency spokesman. “We respect the contributions Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan have made in service to our country, and thank them for helping to pave the way for our exciting future forward,” the statement read. “Just as their ambitious missions captivated the nation’s attention nearly a half-century ago, today’s American space explorers are leading the way to even farther destinations that will one day allow the first astronauts to set foot on Mars. It is a bold vision laid out by President Obama and Congress, in bi-partisan fashion, to pioneer new frontiers, push the bounds of exploration, and test the limits of innovation and technological development.”
So this hearing may have been little more than an opportunity for critics of the administration’s plan—which, as the NASA statement implied, has the endorsement of Congress in the form of last year’s authorization act—to vent their frustrations that things aren’t going they way they would like, rather than an attempt to reshape policy in the near-term. With the current authorization act in effect for two more fiscal years, and little interest by appropriators to rectify those perceived shortcomings by, say, putting more money into SLS and MPCV (or CCDev), the current policy is likely to be in place at least into 2013. And even if a new president takes office in January 2013, space is probably not going to be a high priority for him or her given the current focus of candidates’ campaigns on jobs, the economy, and other issues outside the realm of human spaceflight.